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Selma vs. LBJ

By Alec Harrington

In 1991, Oliver Stone slandered Lyndon Johnson in his film JFK, accusing Johnson of complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy. A number of historians and political figures (including Johnson Aide and Carter Administration Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr.) have argued that Ava DuVernay’s new movie Selma defames LBJ as reluctant to send Congress a voting rights bill and as opposed to the Selma voting rights campaign.

Selma is, indeed, unfair to Lyndon Johnson, but criticizing Selma is more complicated than criticizing JFK, both because DuVernay’s misrepresentation has more of a basis in fact than does Stone’s conspiracy theory nonsense and because of the way in which Hollywood has represented (or not represented) the Civil Rights movement in the past. On the other hand, it is arguably more problematic to misrepresent Johnson than it is to misrepresent a historical figure who has gotten his or her due or who has been inaccurately lionized.

Lyndon Johnson is one of the most maligned presidents in the history of the United States. Yes, he did great harm in escalating the U.S. war in Vietnam, but he did great good in engineering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in introducing and shepherding to passage the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, and many other laws that have brought justice and a measure of economic security to the American people. Yet his catastrophic Vietnam policy and the unjustified hagiography surrounding John F. Kennedy, along with Johnson’s justified reputation as a wheeler-dealer and his sometimes crass personality have made him a loathed figure to many.

Johnson has been undergoing a rehabilitation for more than a decade – possibly for decades, plural. In 1981, Robert Caro published the first volume of his five-part biography of LBJ: The Path to Power, which painted a complex portrait of Johnson. However, his second volume The Means of Ascent, published in 1990, depicted Johnson as self-serving and crooked. It was in the third volume, Master of the Senate, published in 2002, that the good of this multifaceted man started to outweigh the bad for Caro.

Also in 2002, John Frankenheimer made The Path to War about Johnson’s escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The HBO movie portrays Johnson not as a warmonger, but as a man overwhelmed by circumstance. The Path to War touches on the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act and is more accurate than DuVernay’s movie.

In 2013, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, the first part of his two-part LBJ stage cycle, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it then picked up a star – Bryan Cranston – in the role of Johnson and moved to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; finally it opened on Broadway, where both the play and Cranston won Tony Awards. I have seen all three incarnations. In Oregon, it was ambiguous as to whether LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out of moral conviction or in order to help him win the 1964 presidential election, and the play seemed to lean in the direction of opportunism. By the time of the Broadway production, thanks to script changes and Cranston’s interpretation, Johnson came across as unambiguously acting from conviction. Interestingly, the play indulges in at least one, if not two, unfair historical inaccuracies. It depicts Johnson as giving in to blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover and authorizing FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King – it was JFK who did this. The play also has Johnson removing a voting rights plank from the 1964 civil rights bill. This is not supported by evidence in any book I have read; however, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, also made this claim in his article on Selma in Politico Magazine; however, when I raised this issue with him in recent correspondence, Updegrove could not recall any source to back up his assertion.

Lee Daniels’ 2013 movie The Butler depicts Johnson positively – the two presidential keepsakes that the lead character, a White House butler, wears to his meeting with President Obama are John Kennedy’s tie and an LBJ tie clip (he takes no mementos from any other three presidents depicted in the movie).

I have made my own modest contribution to the LBJ rehabilitation with my play The Great Society, which premiered off-off Broadway in 2013. (It was overshadowed by Schenkkan’s work and I’ll allow I’m not the most objective reader of his play.)

The rehabilitation campaign (or the passage of time, or the fact that there has not been a president since Johnson who has combined legislative skill with New Deal Democratic values) has worked. As President Obama began to flounder during his first term, progressive voices expressed a longing for LBJ and his ability to get things done (which, in turn, provoked other liberals who responded that Johnson did not have to deal with the Congresses confronting Obama).

It is frustrating that Selma came out as the LBJ rehabilitation seemed to be gathering steam. One can assume more people will see a well-received major Hollywood movie like Selma than will read Caro’s books or see a Broadway play. LBJ looms very large (and very darkly) in Selma. And that portrait seems certain to reach a deeply impressionable audience since corporations and prominent individuals have established a fund to enable 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to see the movie for free.

As I said above, Hollywood’s past representations (or lack thereof) of the Civil Rights Movement make a criticism of Selma problematic. To my knowledge, only one major Hollywood movie, prior to The Butler, focuses on non-violent civil rights activists in the South: Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988). The fact that there was only one such movie between the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965 and the release of The Butler in 2013 speaks to Hollywood’s marginalization of black life and history. (It should be noted that television has done somewhat better in dramatizing African American history: the 1970s saw a proliferation of TV movies and miniseries such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, King, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the historic Roots.) Like most studio movies, Mississippi Burning was, unlike The Butler and Selma, directed by a white man. Though one civil rights movie does not a trend make, Mississippi Burning is part of a long tradition of movies about racism told from the perspective of noble, white saviors. The classic of this genre is Robert Mulligan’s undeniably great To Kill a Mockingbird. The heroes Mississippi Burning are two white FBI agents (which is particularly galling in light of Hoover’s persecution of King).

So, I am somewhat uncomfortable in saying that Ava DuVernay is not giving credit to the great white savior Lyndon Johnson, and she was right when she said on the radio program Fresh Air, “This film is not about LBJ. This is a film that's about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma.”

However, Selma’s treatment of Johnson goes beyond a withholding of credit: it portrays him as hostile to the voting rights movement. In Johnson’s first scene, he says of King’s insistence on the introduction of voting rights legislation, in essence, “What more does he want?...I already gave them the Civil Rights Act.”

In his criticism of Selma, Califano cited a recording of a January 15th, 1965 phone call between Johnson and King. In that phone call (nearly two months before Bloody Sunday – March 7th), Johnson says of voting rights legislation, “I talked to the Attorney General, and I’ve got them working on it.” In his correspondence with me, Califano wrote, “LBJ told [Attorney General] Katzenbach in December 1964 (I believe the date was Dec. 14) to start drafting voting rights legislation.” This does not mean that Johnson was ready to submit it to Congress. In At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume of his history of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch writes that, in a February, 1965 meeting with King, Johnson “insisted on his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill.”

Still, there is significant difference between, on the one hand, having a voting rights bill drafted but reserving the right to choose the moment to send it to Congress, and, on the other hand, a stony unresponsiveness to King’s priorities (“What more does he want?”).

The most pernicious distortion in the film was described by the New York Times as follows: “the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.” The Times goes on to summarize historian David A. Garrow’s assertion that “the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson.”

Not only was Johnson not involved in sending King the blackmail tape, he ignored Hoover’s evidence of King’s infidelity when he was presented with it. In Pillar of Fire, the second volume of his civil rights history, Taylor Brach writes that just after a Hoover aide delivered a transcript of the sex tape to the President, Johnson shocked the bureau by announcing to reporters that he had invited King and other civil rights leaders to the White House.

DuVernay’s changing the date of the incident is the kind of minor alteration of historical fact that filmmakers, playwrights, and historical novelists indulge in all the time. I have no objection to the fact that DuVernay makes it seem as if the September, 1963 killing of four little girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church occurred after Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964. I took much license in writing The Great Society. I invented a confrontation over Vietnam between Johnson and King, which never occurred. I made Bayard Rustin King’s omnipresent advisor, which he was not, so he could voice his own ambivalent views about Vietnam in that fictitious scene. I altered the timeline of events surrounding Selma. I had Johnson send Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Johnson aide Jack Valenti to see King in Selma, when, in reality, it was Assistant Attorney General John Doar and former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins. (Katzenbach and Valenti were in other scenes of my play and Doar and Collins would have been introduced for this scene only.)

Dramatic license, though, doesn’t excuse DuVernay’s fabrication of Johnson authorizing Hoover’s blackmail. That’s beyond the pale because it falsely attributes a morally reprehensible act to a real human being. DuVernay’s implication that Johnson may well have had no intention of introducing voting rights legislation amounts to another defamation.

While dramatic license is defensible in many instances, smearing people is unethical. No one deserves to be slandered or libeled, but it’s particularly galling when the slander is aimed at a man who has already been falsely accused of murder in a major motion picture.

From February, 2015

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